By Bruce Ackerman
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; A21
President Obama's nomination of retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper as director of national intelligence continues a tendency of appointing military men to positions that generally should be reserved for civilians. Obama is already relying on retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones -- who served as commandant of the Corps -- as his national security adviser. If Clapper is confirmed, Obama will get his daily intelligence briefing from a retired military man, then turn to another former officer to hear about his national security options.
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush displayed sounder judgment. Both relied on civilian national security advisers throughout their terms. When Congress created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence five years ago as part of post-Sept.11 intelligence reforms, Bush chose John Negroponte for the job. But this distinguished diplomat was succeeded by two retired admirals. By appointing yet another retired military officer -- currently the undersecretary of defense for intelligence -- Obama is placing a decisively military mark on the new office.
We tend to speak in vague generalities about the importance of civilians making the key decisions on military matters. But this commitment, dating to our nation's founding, will be reduced to banality unless it is given real-world meaning. The emerging pattern makes nonsense of the idea that military men should defer to civilians on big issues. Regardless of the abilities of particular advisers, Obama is entrenching a bad precedent. Presidents are in constant contact with their national security adviser and intelligence director -- which creates the danger that the nation's commander in chief may tend to take seriously only those options that make sense to the military mind.
When the postwar generation created the Defense Department and the National Security Council, it took practical steps to ensure -- as the Founders first insisted -- that the military would be under civilian leadership. But this commitment has been eroding throughout the higher reaches of the defense establishment.
For example, Congress wanted to ensure that the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force would be civilians. So it barred retired officers from these positions until they had spent five years in civilian life. The first postwar generation followed the spirit of this law. Before 1980, the Senate confirmed 42 secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and nearly all were civilians in fact as well as name: Only one had 15 years of military service, and only 17 percent had served as many as five years. But since 1980, 27 have been confirmed, and nearly a quarter have served for 15 years or more, while 44 percent have served for as many as five years. Only the secretary and deputy secretary of defense remain reliably civilian.
The constitutional principle of civilian control is losing its basis in sociological reality: Senior officers are talking to (retired) senior officers about high matters of policy on a regular basis -- and then forwarding their advice to more retired military men with privileged access to the Oval Office.
We owe our present situation more to drift than to design. When making individual appointments, presidents and Cabinet secretaries naturally focus on the abilities of particular candidates. It is easy to lose sight of the overall pattern of appointments. Yet it is precisely this pattern that puts the Founders' commitment to civilian control at risk.
I am not suggesting drastic measures. It would be silly to impose a broad ban on candidates with long military careers. This would deprive presidents of officers like Brent Scowcroft, who was an outstanding national security adviser in the administrations of both Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
But we should become more mindful of the general pattern and take pains to ensure that White House decision making is dominated by civilian politicians and policymakers who bring the broader perspectives gained from deeper involvement in democratic politics. It is not enough for this perspective to gain expression from other officials, such as CIA Director Leon Panetta, who do not have the principal responsibility for briefing the president on a daily basis.
By dint of his 45 years in intelligence operations, Gen. Clapper is well qualified. But as they consider his confirmation, senators should confront a larger question: Does Clapper have the breadth of exposure to civilian life that will give him a deep appreciation of democratic values and aspirations?
The writer is a professor of law and political science at Yale University.